On a recent beautiful autumn morning we left for a short two-day holiday with friends. Our plans included the Hula Lake bird sanctuary and the Old City in Acre (called Akko in Israel). But since our friends hadn’t eaten yet, we decided to enjoy a breakfast break on our way north at the fabulous Herodian/Crusader ruins in Caesarea National Park.
Caesarea was a Roman city built by the infamous Jewish puppet king Herod (74BCE-4CE), on the site of an insignificant town, Straton’s Tower. Caesarea had one of the largest and most magnificent ports in the Mediterranean. Its giant piers stretched out into the sea to accommodate dozens of ships in its state-of-the-art port, Sebastos, the largest seaport on the eastern Mediterranean. The city of Caesarea contained a giant hippodrome, amphitheater, aqueduct, baths, temple, and an open-air semi-circular theater. A thousand years later the Crusaders arrived and built a giant fortress at Caesarea. Next came the Ottomans, under whose rule Caesarea declined into a seaside town of little consequence.
Today, the Roman theatre is a venue for concerts, the Crusader fortress is thrilling to visit and the Ottoman harbor and beach are full of cafes, restaurants and a visitors’ center. The great thing about this park is that every few years you can visit and find something new. A case in point: the striking new visitor center which was built in an extensive system of vaults in the front of the platform built by King Herod to house his magnificent temple, the main public building of Herod’s Caesarea.
Conveniently, Caesarea is only about 45 minutes’ drive from Tel Aviv and 20 minutes from Haifa. After a great breakfast at one of the many cafes along the harbor, we headed towards the Hula Nature Reserve, a leisurely, scenic drive of less than two hours.
When Zionist pioneers began to develop modern Israel, starting in the late 19th century, the Hula Lake was perceived as an obstacle to development. Its surrounding lands were not agriculturally viable and the diseases in the area, especially malaria, impeded the pioneers’ effort at enterprise. The existing, sparse population of the area was comprised mainly of Egyptian army deserters, runaway slaves, and outcasts from the Bedouin tribes in this remote area. They made a living mainly from fishing, herding buffalo, and weaving papyrus. After the War of Independence in 1948, they were resettled at the foot of the Arbel Mountain.
Nonetheless, the area had attracted Zionist settlers; the community of Yesod Hamaala was founded in 1883 and in its early years waged a difficult war against malaria. In 1934 the kibbutz Hulata was founded and a bitter rivalry began between the two Jewish settlements regarding fishing rights in the lake. The rivalry lasted until the drying of the lake in the 1950s brought on a forced truce.
In a regrettable move, the State decided to drain the lake and the surrounding wetlands in order to expand the available agricultural land in the Galilee. The project was criticized by scientists and experts who claimed that the peat soil that characterizes the area, would sink and be unfit for agriculture. Nature lovers joined the efforts against the drying up of the lake. Although this struggle, the first of its kind in Israel, did not succeed, it prompted the decision to found the Hula nature reserve, as well as the founding of the Israeli Society for the Protection of Nature.” (zionistarchives.org.il)
In 1964 the Hula Nature Reserve was officially inaugurated, after a small part of the original lake was refilled – about a decade after it had been drained. Because of the area’s location, on the flight path of millions of birds going north or south seasonally between Africa and Euro-Asia, the lake and marsh areas are a wonderful spot for bird watching many species of migrating birds.
Arriving at the reserve in mid-afternoon, we followed the main swamp trail, dotted by bird-watching posts, in our rented golf cart. Kingfishers, pelicans, storks, cormorants, cranes, and other waterfowl were in abundance. Although we had been to the reserve numerous times, our arrival in the autumn, at this time of day, was the best yet. At twilight we saw thousands of birds coming in for the night. In addition, the brand new visitors’ center is set to feature dioramas and 3D films on wildlife and bird migration.
It was a shorter and equally scenic ride further north to the Acre on the Mediterranean coast, which has had a remarkable makeover in the last few years. What was once somewhat shoddy and dirty is now the sparkling, clean ancient city of Old Acre, part of the modern, mixed Jewish-Arab town. We made our way to the excellent Akko Knights Hostel, which is located conveniently for walking throughout Old Acre and was perfect for our 1-night stay.
Ready for dinner, we decided to save the popular, atmospheric port area with its many fish restaurants until the next day. We wandered a short distance through the market places and ended up in the extravagantly well-lit Ottoman-era Khan esh-Schawarda Square, built on the site of an old convent from the Crusader era. We made the mistake of ordering dinner for each of us; sharing one platter would have sufficed!
The next morning we started out at the small, recently renovated Ramchal museum, which was once a synagogue. There, an older, local gentleman told us its interesting history: from the 16th to 18th centuries, the Jewish community of Acre had two synagogues, the Achav Synagogue and the Ramchal Synagogue, of which the Ramchal Synagogue was the larger and more elegant of the two. It was named after Rabbi Ramchal, who lived in Acre from 1743 to 1747. However, in 1758 the Bedouin ruler of Acre, Dahar el-Omar, took over the synagogue – which was one of the city’s most impressive buildings – and built the el-Mualek Mosque on top of it. (There are some who claim that the remnants of the original synagogue are still preserved beneath the mosque.) As a substitute, the Jews were given a small, decrepit building north of the el-Mualek Mosque, in which the museum is located.
The Treasures in the Wall Museum was our next stop. You can guess that the museum was built inside the Ottoman wall surrounding the ancient city. The blend of the original stone halls and the hundreds of objects on display in the ancient vaults is terrific.The hundreds of items displayed in the museum enable one to get acquainted with the traditional craftsmen who worked in the markets, the spectacular furniture of the city’s well-to-do, and the day-to-day life in a city that was a unique meeting place of art and religion.
On the short walk from the museum to the Port, we walked through the amazing, massive Land Gate, which was built in the 15th century. Because of the moat surrounding Acre during Ottoman times, this was the only dry-land entry to the city. The gate, with its thick iron-coated, studded gates, is built on a right-angle turn, forcing attackers to slow down before entry, making them an easier target for the defenders. (This was a common feature of walled cities from ancient times.) A large watchtower is close to the gate.
Acre’s port is lively, with loads of restaurants, docks, fishing, tourist boats, and the clock tower of Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II, who ruled from 1876 to 1909. (Four more of these imposing clock towers were built in Safed, Haifa, Jaffa, and Nablus (Shechem) out of 144 clock towers built throughout Ottoman lands). The Port is located near the several shuks: the Old Market, the Turkish Market, and the White Market. We enjoyed our delicious lunch of local fish overlooking the harbor. This time we ordered three meals instead of four. (The waiter told us we each had to order a meal, but he quickly accepted our compromise order for three platters, which were accompanied by several delicious salads.
We finished our tour with a short walk through the Templars Tunnel, which includes a lot of historical information about Crusader history in Acre. A visit to the Old Turkish Bath was included in the modest price of the ticket. Although I’d been on the Bath tour several times, I still enjoyed the lively commentary and film which accompanied us in our meander through the bath house, which featured four members of the family who were guardians and operators of the premises during its existence in previous centuries. Unfortunately, there was no time to visit the vast underground Knights Halls, which are located under the Ottoman/British citadel. Nor did we visit the British jail which was famously featured in the film “Exodus.” Next time…
On the way home, we went very slightly off our route to enjoy a coffee stop in Zichron Ya’acov, one of the two towns which Baron Rothschild developed in the late 19th century as the center of a budding wine industry – which has resulted in a plethora of wineries today. The well-preserved main street of the town features many cafes and shops which attract foreign visitors as well as Israelis. It was a pleasant end to a short but enjoyable “vacation” in Israel. Check out Caesarea, Akko, and Zichron Ya’acov on your next (or first) trip to Israel!